January Books

The Daily — Jan 20, 2021
Ingmar Bergman and his fourth wife, pianist Käbi Laretei

Karl Ove Knausgaard, known to most for his six-volume autobiographical novel My Struggle, opens this month’s round on new and noteworthy books. One of the essays in his new collection, In the Land of the Cyclops, appears in full at Literary Hub. Knausgaard takes us from his own childhood in Norway to an office in Munich, where, in 1978, Ingmar Bergman is spending three hours each morning working on a screenplay that will never be realized, Love Without Lovers. Poring through Bergman’s earlier workbooks, Knausgaard observes that “to create something, Bergman had to go sub-Bergman, to the place in the mind where no name exists, where nothing is as yet nailed down, where one thing can morph into another, where boundlessness prevails.”

Knausgaard traces a possible route from a few lines that Bergman jotted down in 1965—“A sensitivity of hands. The broad forehead, severity, eyes that explore, the soft and childlike mouth”—to “Bergman’s absolute masterpiece,” Persona (1966). As much as Knausgaard admires the films, he prefers Bergman’s novels, arguing that “no literary work of that time outshines” the trilogy based on his parents’ all-consuming romance and ultimately fractious marriage, The Best Intentions, Sunday’s Children, and Private Confessions. “What’s striking about them is the emotional precision Bergman achieves,” writes Knausgaard, “not only in each of his characters but also in the interactions between them, where so many conflicting forces collide, unrelentingly propelling the story forward. Bergman’s masterly skill lies in his ability to bring out every perspective, imbuing in the reader the sense that each character is as important as the next, at the same time making it plain that the sum of these perspectives can have but one inevitable conclusion.”

Happy Birthdays

Yesterday marked the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Patricia Highsmith, “whose psychological thrillers meld gliding literary cool with a jangling morass of nerves—a combination, in turn, that filmmakers have been trying to translate since the middle of the last century,” writes Guy Lodge in the Guardian. Lodge surveys some of the best of those adaptations, “ranging from cast-iron classics to moldering B-movies.”

Celebrating Cary Grant’s birthday on Monday—he was born Archibald Leach in Bristol in 1904—the London Review of Books posted Gaby Wood’s 1997 review of Graham McCann’s Cary Grant: A Class Apart. It’s “the kind of biography one often imagines but rarely gets: it likes the movies; it unpacks Cary Grant the star, without being a ‘star biog’; it is intelligent about his screen presence, but also tells the life—is interested in what a life might be; it quotes Mel Brooks and Roland Barthes (in that order).” Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Chris Yogerst finds that with Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise, Scott Eyman “continually finds ways to locate the person behind the self-styled mask.”

Life Stories

Gabriel Byrne, probably best known for his performances in Miller’s Crossing (1990), The Usual Suspects (1995), and Hereditary (2018), turned seventy last year, and he’s written a memoir. Reviewing Walking with Ghosts for the Guardian, Sean O’Hagan admits that the first few pages had him worried. “As someone who read an extract from Frank McCourt’s acclaimed Angela’s Ashes thinking it was a parody of an Irish misery memoir in the vein of Flann O’Brien’s satire The Poor Mouth, I found myself wondering if this might be a celebrity version of the same,” he writes. “I am relieved to say it is not.” The book turns out to be “affecting on many levels: a working-class family memoir as well as a meditation on fame and its discontents.” Profiling Byrne for the New York Times, Sarah Lyall notes that Byrne is already working on another book, “a novel this time, on the themes of immigration and exile.”

Byrne overcame his dependence on alcohol more than twenty years ago. Barbara Payton, whose acting career peaked in 1950 when she appeared alongside James Cagney in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, never did. After a few more notable roles and countless turned tricks, she died in 1967 at the age of thirty-nine. But her 1963 autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed, “became a cult classic, legendary for its lurid depiction of 1950s Hollywood,” writes Hadley Hall Meares for Vanity Fair. And she knew how to conjure a sensation. Recalling her fling with B-movie star Tom Neal—she was married to Joan Crawford’s ex, Franchot Tone, at the time—Payton wrote: “He was a beautiful hunk of man. He had a chemical buzz for me that sent red peppers down my thighs.”

Michael Orthofer recommends Daniel Steuer’s new translation of Jörg Später’s Kracauer, a biography of the journalist, sociologist, and novelist Siegfried Kracauer, best known to cinephiles for his 1947 book, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film. Focusing on Kracauer’s friendships with Theodor W. Adorno, Ernst Bloch, and Walter Benjamin, Später “offers a fascinating account of the (specifically but not solely Jewish) German-intellectual experience before the war, and then the emigrant experience after,” and “it’s a pretty darn good story, too.”

The popularity of The Queen’s Gambit has Nancy Wartik looking back in the New York Times on the life of Walter Tevis, who wrote the novel the Netflix series is based on. Tevis wrote six novels, including three more that became movies: The Hustler and its sequel, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Allan Scott, who cocreated The Queen’s Gambit with Scott Frank, optioned the novel back in the 1980s and tells Wartik that he considers Tevis to be “one of the best American writers of the twentieth century.”

Latest Issues

Armond White, the film critic for the conservative National Review, has a new book out collecting reviews he’s written over the past several decades of films by the director he’s best known for championing, Steven Spielberg. “For me,” writes Adam Nayman in Cinema Scope, “reading White regularly for almost as long as I’ve been writing professionally has been a way to test my own principles and prejudices (without ever absorbing White’s own). What’s most interesting about Make Spielberg Great Again—and what makes it a vital read—are not its ideologically jerry-rigged conclusions about its namesake as a casualty of liberal partisanship, but the way its fifty-plus selections, drawn from a variety of publications including college newspapers and semi-obscure journals and websites as well as Film Comment, the City Sun, and, of course, the New York Press, trace White’s own real-time evolution as a critic, one whose bristlingly anti-establishment mandate has remained consistent even as the ideological and industrial foundations of that establishment—in film culture and beyond—keep shifting beneath his feet. It compels as a portrait of a brilliant, voluble writer holding his ground, standing athwart history and shouting, ‘Fact is!’”

Cinema Scope also features Chuck Stephens’s review of the new facsimile edition of Cover to Cover, the 1975 book by artist and filmmaker Michael Snow, who is best known for 1967’s Wavelength. “When’s the last time you held a book that turned itself upside down while you were holding it, thus compelling you to turn the thing over yourself, only to find figures inverted, cars driving backward, endings that show us how to begin again . . . until you wonder if you’re still reading the thing right at all, or if there is a right way, or at least a right way to go wrong?” asks Stephens. “Trust me: you must have this book, if only to experience the inevitability of it having you.”

In the latest issue of Screening the Past, we find not only Anna Dzenis’s review of Adrian Martin’s Mysteries of Cinema, “an important addition to [a] significant and influential oeuvre, assembling select major essays that cover over thirty-four years of Martin’s writing from the early 1980s through to the late 2010s,” but also Martin’s review of Robert B. Ray’s The Structure of Complex Images. Ray’s “goal, above all,” writes Martin, “is to get students not to work first from broad theories, concepts, or contexts, but to notice particular things—moments, details, interactions, images—that grab, intrigue and stick with them, and to work outwards from there. Not science, but experimentation; not catechism, but novelty; not too-general history, but specific example or anecdote. Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell (‘Americanism’ and all) are among the master-thinkers who light this path for Ray.” Cavell’s 1979 book The World Viewed is “undoubtedly one of the central texts of so-called film-philosophy,” writes Rex Butler, and The Thought of Stanley Cavell and Cinema, a new collection edited by David LaRocca, “will serve as further evidence of [its] canonization.”

Book reviews have long been Film International’s strong suit. Reviewing V. F. Perkins on Movies, a collection of shorter pieces edited by Douglas Pye, Jeremy Carr argues that it’s the critic’s “deceptively uncomplicated language” that “sustains some of the most profound observations on cinema ever recorded.” The Films of Barbara Kopple, edited by Jeff Jaeckle and Susan Ryan, “offers a thorough dissection of this formative figure in documentary filmmaking,” writes Kate Elora Rogers. And in Hollywood’s Hard-Luck Ladies: 23 Actresses Who Suffered Early Deaths, Accidents, Missteps, Illnesses and Tragedies, Laura Wagner traces individual stories “from obscurity to the soundstage,” writes Zoe Kurland, “showing with frank prose and attention to detail how differently each woman approached their career, and how quickly they were sorted into the types that would come to define them—the all-American girl, the exotic temptress, or the femme fatale, among others . . . The irony in Wagner’s text seems to be that these women, in partaking in the grand system of Hollywood, only further perpetuated the tropes that trapped them.”


For 032c, Wes Del Val talks with Chris Kraus and Hedi El Kholti, two of the three editors of Semiotext(e), the third being Sylvère Lotringer. The independent press, originally founded as a journal in 1974, cut its teeth publishing translations of such French theorists as Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard before turning to American writers and artists, including Kathy Acker and David Wojnarowicz. El Kholti mentions that Semiotext(e) acquired the first volume of The Cinema House and the World, the first volume of the collected works of the renowned French film critic Serge Daney, in 2013. “It went through a few translators, who started the project but felt overwhelmed by the scope and commitment and gave up,” he says before adding that they hope to finally release it either later this year or in early 2022.

The Cineteca di Bologna has just published for the first time the complete version of Charlie Chaplin’s screenplay for The Freak, the film that he was preparing to shoot when he died in 1977. The book, ten years in the making, “also comprises previously unseen materials, such as preparatory notes, drawings, photos, and stills from filmed rehearsals of the film that Bologna archives chief Gianluca Farinelli calls Chaplin’s ‘artistic testament,’” reports Variety’s Nick Vivarelli. The Freak is out in Italian now and will soon be presented to international publishers.

Lee Unkrich, the director of Toy Story 3 (2010) and Coco (2017), has been posting ephemera related to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) at a tumblr he’s called The Overlook Hotel for nearly ten years now. A few weeks ago, he tweeted word that he was working “round the clock” to complete a “magnum book” on the film’s making. “Can’t wait to share the unseen treasures I’ve unearthed over the past decade,” he adds.


Pamela Cohn’s Lucid Dreaming, an excellent collection of interviews with some of the most vital nonfiction filmmakers currently working, was published last spring, and ever since, Cohn has carried on conducting conversations and sending out one each week in the form of an ongoing podcast.

And finally for now, to celebrate the new, expanded edition of Richard Porton’s Film and the Anarchist Imagination, Anthology Film Archives will launch a streaming series on February 3. Anarchism on Film will feature work by Ken Loach, Peter Watkins, Želimir Žilnik, and Abigail Child.

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